We were naked, young, and foolhardy. We believed if we were one with the water, we could not be hurt. Hundreds of summer days, racing down the fast waters, lying on our backs, feet first: climbing back through the rhododendron on the creek’s edge, we saw copperheads and water moccasins, black widows and lightning strikes just above us when the storms came in fast and low.
Getting to Bull Run, West Virginia wasn’t an easy thing back in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. The gas-station maps didn’t guide you there because it wasn’t a place. On top of that, the roads, such as they were, shifted back and forth from blacktop to gravel and, when the big coal trucks had been running full-out in wet weather, they were often entirely washed away. You couldn’t know until you got there just what you were in for; you couldn’t exactly call up Consolidation Coal and ask them, because Bull Run wasn’t public land, and they had the mining rights—deep and surface—and they sure didn’t want hippies and freaks with cameras taking pictures along the way.
So you watched the weather, and checked in with the other Bull Run people to see how things were. The crapshoot was this: good rains meant the Run was deep and fast, but those same rains washed down the denuded hillsides, taking the road with them.
Rain also increased the acid mine runoff in the Run. We weren’t sure what was in it, but we knew it was bad. There was arsenic, certainly, and lead and mercury. Just how much, we didn’t know. Even the West Virginia Bureau of Mining didn’t give out that information; back then, the regulatory bureaucracies were simply arms of the coal companies. That hasn’t changed much; one of the biggest online propagandists for the virtues of strip mining is a Mine Safety Inspector moonlighting on his time off.
Then there was the human gauntlet. Even today, most of West Virginia divides between the mine people and the outsiders. For most of the 20th century, though, the miners used the union to throw off their wage-slavery, or at least to fight back against the company store and the company-owned housing and the ways they kept you in thrall for generations. You might still go to your grave owing everything but the burial insurance to the company store, but you didn’t owe your soul.
When the mining companies managed to bust the union late in the century, it did so by methods familiar to labor historians and labor organizers. Mechanization drastically cut the workforce, and by rigorously closing economically marginal mines the companies were able to lay off whole towns of miners. Even if they belonged to the union, they were fodder for a race to the bottom in wages, benefits, protections. With that much scab labor available, and with union voting members themselves out of work and out of benefits, it wasn’t hard to break the unions or simply renegotiate the contracts down, down, down.
Of course the companies were emboldened by the collapse of coal prices, the introduction of even-minimal environmental regulations of coal-fired power plants, and a wave of mergers and consolidations that eventually left most of the coal mining in the hands of two companies—Arch Coal, and Peabody.
Back then, though, deep mines around that part of northern West Virginia were run by Consolidation Coal Company—the Con, we called it. Towns like Cascade and Masontown and Dellslow, all of them on Decker’s Creek and all of them on the way from Morgantown to Bull Run, still had vestiges of their histories as company towns. When you turned off county road 7—Main Street, in Masontown—you went past the company houses, dating back to the ‘20s and ‘30s, some of them photographed by Walker Evans when he came through in ’36.
Then you were out. There was a little store there where you could buy sodas if you hadn’t brought them. That was where the miner’s kids hung out, and they would give you the hard stares, sometimes push past you hard, and you’d try to stay loose, not to knock things off the shelves. When you didn’t push back, there wasn’t much for them to do, so they’d head out to the porch in front of the store. When you came out, they’d be close to your car, not quite so close that they touched it, but close enough.
If you were there with Peter Barton, it was different. Peter had the full-on West Virginia accent, and he had red hair, pretty short, and though he was slender he was tough. He liked to mess with them back. He’d walk up really close to one of them, not the toughest one, not the head dog, but the lieutenant, and he’d stick his face right there, almost touching cheek to cheek and he’d talk, slow and quiet, into his ear, all the while holding his right hand just above the boy’s forearm, as if to caress it, or to grab it had and break the bone. What he said wasn’t much, but it was enough. He just called the bluff, called it with simple, small questions: hey: why’d you do that? No one taught you manners? No one taught you to live and let live? Is there something you want from me? From him? From us?
Peter could do that. We couldn’t. We wondered when there would be consequences. When we drove out of Masontown, we watched the rear view mirror.
Passing the old company houses was the same. They sat on the dirt road, and behind them was the hill, strip-mined so it was naked dirt, gullied and raw, with here and there a patch of weeds or a scrub tree—nothing the coal company had planted in its hillside reclamation. What that meant in 1969 and 1970 and 1971 was: spray a layer of topsoil mixed with water into a thin slurry, using big firehoses, that slurry with a little grass seed mixed in. Do that a few times for a few weeks, till a hint of green would cover the hillside. If the hard rains didn’t strike. But they always did. Maybe not that week or even that month. But come the next spring, and the hillside would be raw dirt washing down into the back yards of the company houses along the road there. Passing those houses, you’d see people sitting on the porches, sitting on old lawn chairs, or house furniture with the upholstery busted out. When you drove by, you could feel them staring with the same hard stares, and you tried not to look like you were staring fixedly ahead so as not to meet eye-to-eye even in the car, for the windows were rolled down, and you were doing—what? Maybe ten miles an hour, maybe fifteen at the most.
You didn’t want to get thirsty and you didn’t want to drink the water. So you’d stop at that store. You could have brought cokes from home, bottles full of water, 3.2 beers, but you didn’t, because it was part of way you earned Bull Run.
You’d wind your way on Depot Street till it turned into county 23, and then turn left, right before the big clearing where the strip mine had taken off the topsoil all the way around the big hill and left nothing but gullies where the rhododendron and the wild rose and the scrub trees had once anchored the hillside. Past that, the road wound around above the Run, and though the rhododendrons shielded it from view, you could hear it. Soon you were looking for a place to pull over, far enough off the road that the coal trucks could get by if they were using the road that week or month or season.
The Run was fast. In the Northeast, there are rivers, streams, creeks; out west there are washes and arroyos and pretty much anything continuously running water down it was a river. In West Virginia, the creeks and streams became runs when they were fast, and steep, rocky, irregular and unpredictable, marked by sudden drops, small waterfalls, right left right drops, splits around boulders and sharper rock formations, sometimes three and four, increasingly narrow before they met again in quieter pools, shallow, sunwarmed, where you lay for a time before letting yourself slide again, down the next set.
Close to the Cheat, I think, there were a couple of big drops. Most of the summer, you stopped short of those. If it was drier than usual, you risked dropping right onto dry rock, maybe twelve, fifteen feet below you. Most of the summer it was wet—the Weather Service statistics consistently put July as the wettest month, at the top of a gentle mound like a stripmine hill. When it was wet, it was fast, and when it was fast, you could be slamming and sliding so quick you had no time to direct yourself to the slower pools or grab the rhododendron branches hanging over the water’s edge. You just let it take you and when you went over the edge, you held your arms in and your hands folded in your lap like you were praying and you kept your feet up and your neck taut so your head might not hit so hard. At the bottom, the dark shiny leaves took the sunlight and modulated it into a pale green mist against the bright orange and deep blacks and blues of the acid runoff and the rocks it had etched into brilliant relief.
That was forty years ago. Today, there’s a subdivision built on one of the strip-mined hills on the outskirts of Masontown; the houses sit, surrounded by the brown dead earth, a few starter trees around each house, struggling to find a hold in the sterile soil. Back then, strip miners were pretty much small time. Con Coal tended to subcontract with locals—it kept the liability down and reduced their profile with the newly-emboldened EPA. A strip mine took a hill. Then, if the coal seam followed the contours, another strip mine would appear where the elevation was right to get at the seam.When the stripping was finished, the land went back to the farmer, but it was done by then. If you had an enterprising son or son-in-law, you might try to build a couple of houses on it, trucking in some topsoil to lay around the quarter-acre lots. It was doomed to wash away, too, but maybe not before some credulous soul had bought that house from you.
Today there’s a different sort of project. The EPA has made the little strippers pretty much obsolete, along with the decline in coal values, the rise in big-equipment costs, and the costs of liability insurance. Now it’s not strip mining. It’s mountaintop removal. And they aren't exaggerating. At Hobet 21, you need a satellite camera to get the whole thing in one frame. The Big Three coal corporations don't pretend their work is safe for the surroundings. They just buy it all up, creating a human buffer, sometimes an environmental buffer, that makes lawsuits and regulatory action difficult. Evangelists like Monte Hieb, an engineer with the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Safety and Health, who declares the U.S. the Saudi Arabia of Coal, declare strip miners demonized. The blasted hillsides and rutted gullies are vestiges of an old practice long abandoned, according to him:
Today's reclaimed mined lands are an oasis to wildlife of all kinds. As a result, a broad-spectrum of wildlife has returned to Appalachia, surpassing all numbers since records have been kept. When I walk beneath the lush green slopes worked and reclaimed by the Strip Miner, along cattail-studded wetlands created intentionally by the miners, among the deer and wild turkey that now thrive here, I hear echoes …of… human soul[s], who, practicing their craft… opened a chapter of Earth History page by page, to reveal her treasures and secrets, then gently closed the book again.
Hieb is outdone by Dink Shackleford, a paid lobbyist for the Virginia Mining Association: We have a chance to improve on God’s creation.
Bull Run is still laced with acid runoff. Now, though, the state regulatory agencies know just what poisons are in it, and how much, and where they have leached from. The company houses have mostly rotted and fallen to ruin. The populations of Masontown, of Dellslow, of Cascade, have shrunk, and the family household income has fallen even further. When the chance comes to mine, even at nonunion wages, even when the deep mines are awash in methane and the boss sends you down anyway, when the strip mine machines are jury-rigged, their safety interlocks jettisoned, so the big dumper can drop back so fast it knocks you through the windshield and out onto the long hood: even then, you’ll take the work. Going there now, I see the same hard stares. I’m still not wanted, and neither are you. But the Run is still fast, and if you’re naked, young, and foolhardy, you can still slide breakneck down the slick rocks to the pools, warm and dappled, surrounded by the jungle of rhododendron.